CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A sentencing hearing has been delayed again for a longtime Massey Energy official who pleaded guilty to mine safety violations and is cooperating in the criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
David C. Hughart had been scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday, after he pleaded guilty to two criminal charges that he plotted with other company officials to routinely violate safety standards and then cover up the resulting workplace hazards.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger signed an order that delayed Hughart's sentencing until 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 10 in federal court in Beckley.
Hughart's lawyer, Michael R. Whitt, of Lewisburg, asked for the delay because of a scheduling conflict involving a jury trial in a criminal case in Greenbrier Circuit Court, records show.
The sentencing was previously delayed from June 25 because of another scheduling conflict.
Hughart pleaded guilty in late February, and prosecutors confirmed that the former Massey official is helping them in a criminal probe that began with the deaths of 29 miners in an April 2010 explosion and has expanded into a broader examination of Massey safety practices.
Hughart faces up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $350,000. In his deal with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, Hughart pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the government by thwarting U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate MSHA standards.
During a Feb. 28 plea hearing, Hughart alleged that former Massey CEO Don Blankenship was among those who took part in a decade-long conspiracy to subvert federal safety inspections at the company's mines. Blankenship has denied any wrongdoing.
Hughart did not work at Upper Big Branch, and his plea deal involved crimes he has admitted committing between 2000 and 2010 at Massey's White Buck operations in Nicholas County, where two midlevel foremen and a Massey operating subsidiary were prosecuted five years ago for criminal safety violations.
Prosecutors identified Hughart as having served as president of Massey's Green Valley "resource group," which included White Buck. But Hughart also worked for Massey for more than 20 years, serving as an officer or a director at more than two dozen subsidiaries, according to public records.
In April, Goodwin's office revealed in court documents in a civil case that former Massey Energy executives and board members "may be, or may become" targets in the criminal investigation. So far in the probe, three people have pleaded guilty and a jury convicted a fourth.
Last year, Berger twice delayed the sentencing of former Upper Big Branch Mine superintendent Gary May to give prosecutors more time to develop evidence based on May's testimony. May pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to thwart the federal government's mine safety efforts. He was sentenced in January to 21 months in prison, three years of probation and a $20,000 fine.
Former UBB miner Thomas Harrah was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009, and then lied to investigators about his actions.
Berger sentenced a former Upper Big Branch security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, to 36 months in jail after Stover was convicted of two felonies: Making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster.
Four government and independent investigations blamed the Upper Big Branch deaths on a pattern by Massey Energy of violating federal standards concerning mine ventilation and the control of highly explosive coal dust, both of which set the stage for a small methane ignition to turn into a huge coal-dust-fueled explosion.
Goodwin reached a deal not to prosecute Alpha Natural Resources for any Upper Big Branch criminal liabilities that it inherited when it purchased Massey Energy in June 2011. That deal required the company to spend $80 million during the next two years on mine safety improvements and create a $48 million mine safety research trust fund. Alpha also agreed to pay $46.5 million in restitution to families of the disaster victims and $35 million to resolve pending Massey safety fines, including $10.8 million levied for violations related to the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Goodwin's deal allowed federal officials to pursue potential criminal cases against any individuals -- including Massey executives -- for violations related to the mine disaster.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.